10 Facts You Need About HPV

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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is sneaky. Once infected, a person can have the virus for years and not even know it. During that time, he or she can transmit the virus to others. We asked local experts to tell us what is important to know about this virus, whether you are 15 or 50 years old.

1. HPV causes multiple kinds of cancer.

Over the last 20 years, researchers proved that certain types of HPV are associated with cervical, vulvar, vaginal, anal, penile, throat and other head and neck cancers. “We know that 99% of cervical cancer is caused by HPV,” says Dr. Nancy Hagloch, an OB-GYN specialist with Providence OB-GYN Health Center in Medford. “If you aren’t exposed to HPV, you can’t get cervical cancer.”

2. HPV causes genital warts.

There are more than 100 types of HPV-related viruses, and some cause genital warts. Dr. Donna Bradshaw, a pediatrician Asante Physician Partners Family Medicine in Ashland, says that when she talks with patients and parents about HPV, the parents worry about the cancer risk, but tweens and teens react to the risk of genital warts.

3. HPV is hard to avoid.

An estimated 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, with about 14 million new cases each year. “HPV is so common that 80% of adults will likely be exposed by age 50,” Hagloch says. “Some of the most aggressive precancerous HPV infections have been in womenwho were married 20-30 years. Then these women remarried, with no prior immunity, and became infected.”

4. There is no cure for HPV.

The body’s immune system can clear most varieties of HPV by itself. There are treatments for the health problems that an HPV infection can cause.

5. HPV passes through sexual contact.

The virus spreads through skin-to-skin intimate contact, such as vaginal, oral or anal sex. For example, HPV is responsible for 70% of throat cancers, passed through oral sex. “You want to vaccinate before sexual debut,” Hagloch says. “That’s a medical decision, not an ethical one.” 

6. HPV vaccinations prevent cancer.

Gardasil 9, the HPV vaccine currently used in the U.S., protects against nine HPV types that cause genital warts and cancer. “The Gardasil vaccine has been around for over a decade and tested even longer,” Bradshaw says. “There is a good cohort of people now who have had the vaccination without any difficulties.” For children 9-14 years old, the series requires two shots six months apart. For people ages 15-45, the series requires three shots at least six months apart.

7. Preteens’ immune systems are primed for HPV prevention.

Bradshaw opens a conversation about HPV vaccination when children reach middle-school age. “The younger you are, the more robust your immune system is,” she says. “As with all vaccines, you want to get the immunity protection before you’re exposed, so your immune system is activated before the body ever sees the virus or bacteria. We give the HPV vaccination at this age to have the best protection before becoming sexually active.”

8. Boys and men benefit from HPV vaccination.

Men may not know they have HPV unless they develop a related issue. There are no FDA-approved tests to screen for HPV in men. “Guys can have HPV and not get cancer, but they can spread it to their partners,” Bradshaw says. And though men don’t get cervical cancer, they are five times more likely than women to get head and neck cancers. 

9. Even if you’re older and have been sexually active, you can get the vaccine.

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the HPV vaccination up to age 45. Hagloch says the immune system response may not be as strong the older you are, but it’s still better than no protection. Bradshaw adds that the vaccination can also still help people who have already had sex, because they may not have HPV yet or one of the nine strains of HPV covered by the vaccination.

10. A vaccination to prevent cancer is amazing.

Hagloch and Bradshaw are both thrilled to have an option to prevent cancer. “To have a vaccine that prevents cancer is an amazing thing,” Hagloch says. “I couldn’t talk about it without getting chills for the first five years the vaccine was available. I feel so fortunate to be in a generation to have it. It impacts my daily life because as an OB-GYN, one of the worst things I have to do is treat women for precancerous changes on their cervixes due to HPV. The necessary procedure is the most painful thing I do to an awake patient other than delivering a baby. If we can reduce the number of women who need these procedures and potentially hysterectomies and cancer, I am passionate about encouraging vaccination.”

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Preteen immunizations

“As with all vaccines, you want to get the immunity protection before you’re exposed, so your immune system is activated before the body ever sees the virus or bacteria. We give the HPV vaccination at this age to have the best protection before becoming sexually active.”

Dr. Donna Bradshaw, pediatrician

Asante Physician Partners Family Medicine, Ashland

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